My wife and I visited Rome and Florence last September. It was our first trip to Europe. To prepare for our trip, we downloaded iphone apps to learn Italian. We also went to several travel sites to read reviews, watched videos and tried to learn as much about the history of Italy and the sites we planned to visit. I got the impression from reading the reviews of other travelers that Rome was a very dangerous city for travelers. So, I read many articles on how to protect my wife and me from being pick-pocketed. After the anxiety of not knowing Italian and having no clue of what to expect from the locals before our trip, I have to say it was one of the most memorable experience of our lives. The places we visited were even more magnificent than any of the pictures and videos I saw on the internet. The locals were friendly and with some common sense, we were not pick-pocketed. One of the most memorable and unexpected surprise for me was meeting several Filipino-Italians. They were not mentioned in any of the travel sites and the books I had read in preparation for our trip. They are working class Filipinos who formed their community in Rome. One dinner, my wife and I spent several minutes talking with a Filipina mother who had not gone back to the Philippines in more than 20 years. There was sadness in her eyes as she told her story about not having seen her kids in those many years. She supports her family by sending money back home.
What I learned from that experience is that no amount of reading could have prepared me for the actual experience. To truly learn about the culture, the people and the place, I had to be there myself.
How does my Italy vacation experience relate to my work as a student affairs professional? It is important to read about student affairs theories, higher education general trends and issues, and studies about the populations we serve to get some perspective on how to approach our work. However, I think it is as important is to spend time, immerse ourselves with the students and customers we serve where they are. Literature is not enough to provide us with accurate picture of the individual experience of our students. This is particularly more significant for those like me, a mid-level manager and technologist, who may not have the opportunity to have consistent daily interactions with our students and customers.
I try to gain as much perspective about student affairs and higher education from reading books, learning from colleagues I meet via social media and blogs I come across about our work. I read Pew Research Studies and ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology in addition to other studies to get some sense of what our students are generally into nowadays. However, just like the websites and reviews I read to prepare my wife and me for our trip; these studies do not provide the individual stories and experiences. Only through my interactions with students do I get the real sense of the unique lives, the aspirations and struggles, of the students I serve.
Last quarter, I was a teaching assistant for a First Year Experience (FYE) Intro to University course to freshman international students. Most of the students were Chinese. I had read admissions applications of international students and that was the extent of my limited knowledge of the population and specifically Chinese students prior to this course. I had several students visit me for my weekly office hours throughout the quarter. I loved our conversations. Some students shared their difficulties adjusting to the American culture, the language, and the demands of the university and as the quarter progressed, I observed their comfort levels increase. There was one particular student who visited me in my office several times during the quarter. We really had engaging conversations from his views on American and Chinese politics, literature, and philosophy. Before he left for China, he visited me to say goodbye (he was only here for a quarter as an EAP student) and with him were two books on Buddhism. He asked me to pick one to keep. We spent several minutes talking about the topics we discussed all quarter and going over his first short story he wrote in English. Somehow, I think we will cross path again.
One lesson I have learned in my career is that our motivations and perspectives as service providers and student affairs professionals may not even align with our students. When we stop seeking the perspectives of our students, spending time with them, talking with them about their needs and wants, there is the danger of going down the road of satisfying our needs as oppose to theirs. For example, one general measure of student success for universities is the retention rate. These are generally measured by graduation rates. But this measure of student success is from the institution’s perspective. If a student leaves our institution without graduating but instead transfers to another institution and completes their degree (or other objectives), would that be considered a student failure?
There are many lessons to be learned from literature. The general theory and studies provide general perspective on how to approach our work in student affairs. Personally, the greatest lessons about the value of my profession have come from the students I have had the privilege of working with throughout my career.